Picture the scene. You have just been selected to represent your country, but prohibited from telling anyone. The information bubbling up inside you, mixing with excitement and anticipation. You have got to hold your powder until the official announcement is made. What do you do?
“Joe [Kiernan] told me on the Friday night before the team was released. He said to keep it quiet. That was one of the hardest things I had to do in my life. I was itching to tell a few people. I was talking to the auld boy and I had to tell him. He was even worse than me,” there is a wry humour in Killian Clarke's voice as he explains how he transferred his own desire to share with the world his joy at being selected to line out in green as Ireland head south to take on Australia in the 2017 International Rules series.
The series has been around since the mid '80s. Since the introduction of professionalism in the AFL it has morphed from a blood and thunder, battle of the bruisers to a dynamic game of athleticism. In the Australian game there has been a move away from bulky players to leaner exponents, with an emphasis on endurance.
Clarke fits the description of what the AFL look for in its players: “I would say that they are stepping away from the 'body builder' physique. They are going for the more athletic shape. If you look at any of the lads that went out like Conor McKenna (Essendon), Ray Connellan (St Kildas), Conor Nash (Hawthorns) – they are all great athletes. It is probably one of my attributes that I try to take advantage is my athleticism. So hopefully this game will suit me a good bit.”
The dynamic nature of the hybrid game is similar to the movement off the ball at inter county level. Killian is aware that the GPS figures are expected to be pretty high: “I'd say I will be playing in the back line, either full or cornerback. It is something similar to the Gaelic, you have to support your lads and not let anyone get isolated. It is a kicking based game where you are looking for the marks, but you still need to be able to get off the shoulder and give options so that if he does get in trouble you can give him options. I'll be no stranger to the far side of the field.”
One aspect that of the antipodean game that the GAA have introduced is the mark. For years observers have commented how the Australian game recognised and rewarded the skill of high catching. Killian says that the southern hemisphere players deploy it in a different way. When he starts to talk about the game of his opponents it is clear that he has done his research.
“I'm a midfielder with the club (Shercock) but a fullback by trade. I have a good balance between the two. When you study the Aussie Rules you are surprised that there are not as many high balls kicked in as you might think. There are a few Irish lads who are very good at it. It is a different technique, it is more of a low punt. The ball doesn't get up too high. You might have the odd bomb thrown in the mix, but a lot of them are in front of the fielder, so you just have to stay in tight. I think that the odd time that a high ball is kicked in I will be comfortable with it,” he explained.
The Cavan captain is well aware that one of the most important aspects of the game is tempo. Competing against professionals and not letting them dictate pace is crucial. Killian says that the role of the the man between the posts is vital: “The keepers have a part to play in that. It is always go, go, go. They are looking to get the ball out as quick as possible. They have to kick the ball outside the 45 for the kick out to count. If you give opponents time to set up then it is easy to defend.”
Both teams are now in the process of changing their mindsets. Reflex actions that are ingrained from years of playing have to be adapted for 'the compromise'. The players are now trying to override muscle memory and overlay a different response when fatigue sets in as they transition to the new game. In the early incarnations of the series it was the last 10 minutes that the Aussies would really put the hammer on the Irish. The men in green are preparing for the change in a relatively short period of time.
Killian says that part of this is by adapting existing abilities: “We have been working on a lot of skills and techniques in the last few weeks. Soccer has come into play. You will see a few lads very comfortable on the ground as well as in the hand. When you get into trouble we can put it onto the feet, so it gets you out of trouble.”
For a player who is the among the first name on his county's team sheet going through the trials system must have been unusual. Being selected from the cream of the 32 counties is a mark of his ability.
“The trials were an interesting concept. I was on the 2015 back up panel. There were 30 picked and 23 for the match days. I was in the seven, so I was outside the starting panel, but part of the group. There was 12 weeks of trials then, this time it was just six weeks. It is good to get exposed to that level of competition.
“The standard of the players you get mixed in with is very high. They are from all around the country, players you would chat with and get on with, but be at their throat on in the normal course of things. All the lads are sound, no one with a big attitude. I think everyone is there to enjoy themselves and put in a good performance. That is want we are looking to do.”
For Killian one of the advantages that Ireland has as they head south is the man at the helm. Joe Kiernan's managerial credentials are a asset that Ireland can rely on.
“Joe is an excellent manager. He has a great knowledge of the Aussie Rules game and that is a big plus for us, and he has a great back room staff. There are a lot of young lads who would not have been exposed to that before, so we need that level of managerial experience.”
The excitement of telling his father about his achievement is something that highlights what this means to those closest to the Shercock man.
“My dad and my brother will be heading out to that. He said that there was no way he was missing this,” Killian told the Celt. “Yeah, the Clarkes are on tour. You will probably see a few pictures floating around. There is a good Shercock contingent in Perth as it is, so we will be meeting up with them. We will not be shy when we meet up with them.”
Prior to the conclusion of the trials Killian had the unusual conflict of representing his club and being available to representing his country. This did not affect the outcome of the championship: “It was a bit broken up, we were still involved in the Club Championship. The championship worked out well. I think we stumbled into the quarter finals of the championship. There were a few disruptions and it was not as smooth sailing as you would like, but we came out on the right side of that, so I'm not complaining.”
Killian said that there is one aspect of the '17 season he would have liked to have changed: “It was a bit of a disappointing year from early on, with Cavan. It did not work out the way we wanted it. We probably had bigger aspirations than what we achieved, we had bigger aspirations.”
People across Cavan, and indeed Ireland, will now be hoping that the aspirations Killian has for his county will be fulfilled for his country as he heads for the land down under.